Tag Archives: mercury

Book Review – Elements of Murder

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison

John Emsley

Hardcover: 436 pages

Publisher: OUP Oxford; 1st Edition edition (28 April 2005)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0641823894

ISBN-13: 978-0641823893

It has everything I want from a book – science, history and murder. It’s not a book everyone would enjoy but to geeks like me it’s fascinating to know that a broken thermometer played a part in the development of photography. I’m also intrigued to find that Pope Alexander VI  was poisoned in 1503 after dining with his son (well, they were Borgias), and that “perpetual pills” were made from antimony. When swallowed, they would pass through the gut, and irritate the gut into clearing itself out. They would then be retrieved, washed and used again. I’m not surprised their use has died out. I still shudder at the thought of what happened when I swallowed one of my gold crowns.

If you prefer environmentalism to murder you can read it as a book on the damage done to humans, fish and the atmosphere, with examples from history and from modern times.

If science is your thing, there is plenty available, possibly too much.

The book covers the poisons Mercury, Arsenic, Antimony, Lead, Thallium and “Other poisonous elements”. There are other poisons available, but these are the ones in the book – the clue is in the word “element” in the title. If you want a book on poisons in general you need a different book. If, for instance, you were interested in general poisons  (and I am making no judgement here) you may be better with a book on plants.

It’s not an easy read because the detail is quite dense, and you have to concentrate, but it is interesting and informative.

I won’t lie, it’s patchy, and there are slow bits because some of the poisoning cases are well known (like Napoleon’s death by wallpaper) and because the science sometimes goes on a bit, but I like the history and there are hundreds of items of trivia to be gleaned from a reading of the book. I’m not going to criticise a book just because of my inability to process science writing.

It’s going back on the shelf for now, but after leafing through it for examples of trivia, I’ll be reading it again soon.




Mad as a Hatter

Sorry, this should have been part of yesterday’s post.

I’ve always known that “mad as a hatter” was something to do with hatters, madness and chemicals but I wasn’t quite clear on the details. I’m currently reading The Elements of Murder (slowly, I admit, but it isn’t light reading) and the book has some interesting details.

I was going to stick a paragraph in about it, as it seemed appropriate and I had a suitably mad photograph. However, having the information and the need to write a post I thought I’d better find more information to fill it out.

This proved to be a mistake. “Mad as a Hatter”, according to some sources, has little to do with madness, and nothing at all to do with hatters.

This is a nuisance, to say the least. According to Wikipedia there are several possible sources for the expression, including the Anglo-Saxons who used the expression to mean venomous as a viper. There are other explanations too. I’m not happy with any of them, nor am I impressed by the references to early usage, without exact dates. However, this is a blog, I’m citing Wikipedia and I’m never going to be mistaken for an academic.  Can we just say “other explanations are available”, and I’ll talk about the one I want?

The Mad Hatter is supposed to be based on Theophilus Carter, an eccentric Oxford furniture dealer and reputed builder of an alarm clock bed exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. When it was time to get up a clockwork motor engaged and tipped the sleeper into a tank of water. This seems a bit brutal even for stern Victorian early risers.

Unfortunately, though there were two alarm clock beds exhibited in 1851, neither of them was attributed to Carter in the catalogue. Nor, despite Carroll’s extensive diaries, is there any real evidence  that the Mad Hatter is based on Carter. It’s a shame, because it’s a good story.

There is, however, plenty of evidence for hatters exhibiting signs of madness.

The main material used in making hats was felt, which was made from the hair of rabbits and beavers, mixed with mercuric nitrate and repeatedly shaped, boiled and washed until it formed smooth cones of felt. This process released mercury vapour which, went inhaled, caused symptoms such as delirium, hallucinations, irritability, excitability, tremors and depression.

In many countries, including the UK, measures were taken to protect workers from exposure and by the end of the 20th century hatters were no longer suffering the effects of mercury poisoning. In the USA it persisted until 1941, being known as the “Danbury Shakes”, after the hat-making centre in Connecticut. Eventually the need for mercury in the war effort meant the use of alternative chemicals and the end of the Danbury Shakes.

Be that as it may, in the 1860s, when Carroll wrote about the Mad Hatter, mercury poisoning, was a major factor in the behaviour of hatters.